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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Visiting poet discusses race and family ties

Published: October 18, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc., Featured

Poet Tess Taylor read at Brandeis on Oct. 10, a gloomy Thursday during the month of ghosts. It was a fitting time for her to visit, as her poems explore the ghost of Thomas Jefferson, a founding father for America and an ancestor of Taylor’s.

Taylor’s work has appeared in the “Atlantic Monthly,” the “Times Literary Supplement,” “The New Yorker” and on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Released in August, her lyric debut “The Forage House” has begun to attract attention, due to its tense themes of racism, history and family stories. This was the volume Taylor read from in the Mandel Reading room, presenting her work to a sizeable audience of students and professors.

Taylor is a fantastic reader, bringing emotion and expression to her vivacious stanzas. Many of her poems present family members who shaped Taylor’s life, such as her grandmother. When other people appeared in the poem, Taylor would scrunch up her nose and speak in a slightly altered tone, giving a true voice to the character. She spoke loudly and clearly, often looking up from her poems to connect with the audience. Taylor did extensive historical research before starting to write many of her poems, and she would explain this background before reading the poems so the audience grasped a clear picture of the setting and undercurrent tensions.

But what truly shone during Taylor’s reading was her work itself. Taylor is an accomplished poet, and her connection to Jefferson is one that all audience members can share, due to Jefferson’s tie to this nation. Some of Taylor’s work is angry, chastising Jefferson for his illegitimate family and for his involvement in the perpetration of slavery. She calls him a man who “died in a debt greater than the nation,” and points out the color of her skin when she says Jefferson gave her “the lions share of your uneven freedom.” In other moments, Taylor is tender with Jefferson, appealing to his known personality traits, such as his rational side. “Families are still stories but now we look at them with DNA, DNA would have fascinated you,” Taylor wrote, and then spoke of Jefferson’s obsession with knowledge, his sponsorship of Louis and Clark.

Often what makes great writing is the surprising; there are concepts that work together that never would have been connected until a creative soul thinks deeper. Many of Taylor’s lines are surprising and odd, but they work well in the poem. Taylor read a poem about Thoreau, given the local pull of the writer who lived at Walden Pond. She speaks about Thoreau’s writing, and the beautiful nature he wrote about, and then surrounds her text with talk of airplanes and the stewardess arriving with pretzels. Taylor often combines the modern with the antiquated, and it highlights connections between the then and the now. “Oh blurred stone and out of wedlock woman,” she wrote, as she allied ancient architecture with modern sexual practices.

Taylor is fond of writing about the scenery and the land; her lines are tied to the earthy soil of the land. “Often I like to sit in a place and think about what the landscape was like before this place was what it was,” she said in an interview with The Hoot earlier this year. Many of her poems presented at the reading had beautiful lines, such as “a pit cut deeper than the plow line.”

Taylor is a poet who lets little moments inspire her. In a question and answer with audience members following the event, someone asked Taylor if there was something she found in her research that she wanted to write on, but never got the chance. Taylor told a story about a house where slaves were kept, where they were forced to work making nails. One nail that was found had been bent, into the shape of a fishhook. “I feel it as a poem,” said Taylor. “It’s a beautiful, small thing.” A writer who observes everything from huge topics such as racism to tiny nails, Taylor is definitely qualified to give advice to aspiring writers. “Read a book and take a walk,” she said, when asked how to conquer writer’s block.

Taylor worked on “The Forage House” from 2004 to this past August, and her effort and dedication is clear in every line of her poems. Brandeis would do well to bring more people with such talent to the university.